“As sure as fate I will burn down all your house and your farm things, and no one shall keep me from it…” This horrific threat was made in March 1845 by a 30 year old woman from Codford St Peter, with the unusual name of Praxell Alford Hinwood. She addressed these words to the prosecutor at the Wiltshire Assizes, where she was on trial for the felony of writing a threatening letter. The upshot of the trial was a sentence to transportation to Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, for ten years. So how did Praxell come to this unhappy fate, and what happened to her next?
Praxell was born on 29 May 1815 and christened on 15 August 1815 at Codford St Mary church. She was one of the daughters of William, a labourer and afterwards a blacksmith, of Codford St Peter, and his wife Sarah. She had six siblings and her eldest brother was also a blacksmith. Her unusual name is possibly a corruption of ‘Praxis’, a Classical name meaning “Action”, which is highly appropriate in the light of her life thereafter! At some point in her childhood she learnt to read and write – possibly locally at a day school in Codford St Peter, or at a Sunday School. (There were Sunday schools associated with the Codford Congregational Chapel which opened in 1811, which would have taught reading and writing as well as scripture.)
In the 1841 census we find her living in the Warminster Union workhouse together with her illegitimate one year old son, Francis John Hinwood. Warminster Union workhouse was built in 1836 on a site in Sambourne, south of the town, as a place where up to 300 paupers from local parishes could be placed to carry out hard work such as breaking stones. This was designed under the ‘Poor Law Amendment Act’ of 1834 to be a deterrent from becoming a burden to their parish in terms of claiming assistance known as poor relief. Segregation of the sexes resulting in splitting up of families meant that many people hated and feared the workhouse in equal measure. For agricultural labourers in particular, who were used to being in work on a seasonal basis and using ‘outdoor relief’ from the parish to help them during the winter when work was sparse, the idea of the workhouse seemed unfair, irrational and the source of much anger. Praxell clearly shared this anger, as her later actions reveal.
Rebellion was in the air more widely at this time - in 1843 the Rebecca Riots were in full flow in rural Wales, and there were Chartist uprisings elsewhere. In June 1843 Praxell wrote a letter to the Master of Warminster workhouse, Benjamin Merchant, as follows: ‘Bloody Merchant, I have sent you a few lines to inform you that sooner or later shall be your blood or ours for there are more than two window breakers on the look out for you, so you must look out for we are determined to do it and you shall not walk out in Warminster streets but a very few more times for you may depend on it shall be your blood or ours, and we don’t care for none of you[r] damn’d police nor you neither for it is time the Devil had you and he shall, for you are not fit to live on the earth nor you shall not damn’d purse-gut bloody bugger, and that is your name, and that is what you are, so mind what is said as a thief in the night sudden destruction shall come upon you” Signed: two symbols of rakes.
I find the use of “we...” interesting here – was Praxell the ringleader of a group of discontented inmates or was she acting alone?
The sentence was six month’s imprisonment for Praxell at Fisherton Gaol although the Quarter Sessions archives show she spent the time in Devizes Prison.
Imprisonment did not crush Praxell’s spirits, and she was up to her old tricks again in Feb 1844 when she broke some workhouse windows, although she was discharged for this crime. The Guardians’ minute book for 6 May 1844 (H15/110/7) simply states that they had received a letter from the Women’s Penitentiary at Bath refusing to admit Praxell, with no comment on what she’s done to deserve admission. Then in October 1844 in the Quarter Sessions Calendar of Prisoners (A1/125/70) we find her back in Devizes Prison for two months, for “misconduct in a workhouse.” I had a look in the Guardians’ minute book for this period but I couldn’t find anything explicit – the entry for 2 Dec 1844 states that owing to the “continued insubordination of the inmates at the workhouse” a special meeting was to be held. At that meeting the fact that “so many women having scaled the walls of the workhouse with the Union clothes” had taken place was raised, but no names were given, frustratingly. The answer from the Guardians was to put spikes on top of the walls!
W.G. Hoskins, the great pioneer of English local history, wrote in his ground breaking book, ‘Local History in England’ (1959), “Directories … give us a good start for reconstructing the kind of community which existed over a period of about a hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s”. Admittedly, he was writing when only two of the Victorian censuses were available to use for historic investigation; modern researchers are spoiled for choice in having easy accessibility to no less than eight census returns, spanning the period 1841-1911.
Even so, directories – published lists of people’s addresses and occupations – continue to supply much useful information for family and local history researchers. Although hardly ever listing those of humble status (don’t expect your servant or labourer forebears to be mentioned), directories provide information on a more frequent basis than the census. In the nineteenth century, and right up to the decades following the Second World War, detailed directories appeared encompassing the whole country. Some national publishers (like Slater and the better-known Kelly) covered whole counties every couple of years, while other smaller local printers might concentrate on a single city or town, sometimes also including villages in the vicinity. As they were produced by competing firms, one year might see several different directories produced for a given place, and the following two or three years, nothing at all.
Whether they are weighty tomes, or slim booklets, directories provide useful, contemporary descriptions of Victorian and Edwardian parishes, towns and cities. They may give details of population and geography, agriculture and industry, schools, charities, public institutions, details of conveyances (coaches and trains) .… but most people use directories to search for people. They will not provide up-to-the-minute information; because of the delay between collecting information and publication, directories may include information that was a year or more out of date by the time the publication date was finally reached. Despite that limitation, a directory can give a flavour of a place, conveying a sense of what a town or district was like to live in at a particular time, and identifying the main property owners, naming the shopkeepers and listing the tradesmen who gave a place its unique character.
They generally listed people whom literate or reasonably well-off people might want to find – clergymen, gentry, nobility, professionals, farmers, craftsmen and tradesmen. Directories may give exact street numbers where census returns do not. The lists often appear in sections, sometimes using a threefold division into ‘Court’, ‘Commercial’ and ‘Trade’ – where Court listed private residents alphabetically, Commercial listed trade and business people alphabetically and Trade broke the commercial list down into constituent professions and trades.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which docked in London on 21 June 1948 carrying 492 passengers from the West Indies who planned on settling in the UK. The arrival of the Windrush is traditionally taken to mark the beginning of a period, lasting from 1948 to 1971, of migration from the Commonwealth to the UK – the “Windrush Generation”.
To celebrate the arrival of the Windrush and its passengers, and to mark Black History Month, we have put together the exhibition ‘Wiltshire Remembers the Windrush Generation’ to showcase the stories of some of the many West Indians who came to settle here in Wiltshire.
The exhibition draws on recollections gathered as part of the SEEME project, a Heritage Lottery funded community project where local people and organisations worked with Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Music Centre & Salisbury Playhouse to collect life story testimonies from Black, Asian & minority ethnic (BAME) elders across Wiltshire to ensure that their stories are recorded and archived for future generations.
Using these recollections it covers the story of the Windrush Generation in Wiltshire, from their reasons for leaving the Caribbean and their first impressions of the UK to their working lives and sense of identity. One of the key themes that runs through all of these areas is the relationship between the new, Black, arrivals and the existing, White, communities in Wiltshire.
For example Rollin, who came to Britain in 1956, remembered clear examples of experiencing racism at work. In particular he recalled “working with a bloke and we’re working, he's my work mate, two of us are working. And he says why don't you go back on your banana tree and all that sort of thing, and I thought why, why you have to say that, y'know? Cause it's stupid! I’d say it's so good I have a banana tree I can go back, but what did he have?”
Likewise Glenda remembered experiencing casual racism throughout her life here, even very recently. “When I first came, I remember someone asking me if we lived in trees, and if we had a tail like a monkey, and but eventually comments like that sort of tailed off. But work wise, I've had problems with work. I mean just before I retired somebody I worked with called me a "black bitch” … I experienced other prejudices, like not being encouraged to further my training … And those sort of things stay with you for such a long time, and you end up getting sort of fearful for how people are going to treat you.”
The racism that many experienced was not confined to words, either – many people we talked to remembered experiencing, witnessing or hearing of physical attacks. Even before coming to Britain in 1961, Sylvia remembered hearing “that they attack black people” in Britain. Whilst living here “I never experienced it, but people would be pushing their babies - black people would be pushing their babies in a pram and some white people would come up and spit on the baby.”
Scotch had a more direct personal experience with racial violence: “in those days there what you call Teddy boys and Angels they used to walk with bicycle chain, knuckle duster and knife and things like that, ready to fight the blacks we have to prepare ourselves to protect ourselves otherwise we wouldn't be here. My brother almost got killed where four white blokes beat him up badly.”
Not all racism was as obvious as this. Tom joined the armed forces and remembers a more subtle (relatively speaking) form of discrimination. “In those days, wherever you got posted, the first thing that would happen was you would go to the camp, hand your papers in and whoever was sitting on the other side of that desk would say ahhh, a West Indian, cricket! And I would say, I do not play cricket. And they couldn’t understand that, you know they’d continue, you guys can really play cricket, what are you, batsmen or a bowler? I do not play cricket. You really don’t play cricket? And that was it. That was me ignored for the next three months. That happened everywhere I went.”
Whilst Tom’s experience of cricket was a tool of exclusion, for others it helped to bring the community together. Bert recalled that “Where I first started off in the type of work I was doing, back in 78/79 actually, there was a police who was killed by a black man in Trowbridge. And it was underlying tension, so I formed the Cavaliers, which was made out of all black people, who played for the Cavaliers. And each year we have two cricket matches against the police, we bring the black community and the police together.”
Each July I set myself a challenge – to find documents in our archive that support the GCSE and A-level topics studied by students who come to us on work placements.
The topics are wide-ranging and on the face of it have little to do with our wonderful county. But Wiltshire folk have always found themselves involved in, if not at the centre of, world events. Among the topics studied by students who have been with us this year are: the Crusades; Henry II; Black American history and Germany 1889-1989. That was just one A-level student.
At GCSE most students tend to study medicine through time, often with a more in-depth look at battlefield medicine in the First World War. Other topics that our students have studied include Weimar and Nazi Germany; international relations during the Cold War; settling of the American west; American politics and civil rights plus a bit of King John and the Magna Carta and a touch of Elizabethan politics, trade and war with Spain thrown in for good measure.
And yes – we can produce documents that relate to all of these topics. The Wiltshire and Swindon Archive is truly global in its coverage.
This year though, the particular challenge was finding collections that referenced the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. We searched using a variety of key words including ‘Hitler’. And it was this search that yielded some interesting results – letters written to author and diarist Edith Olivier by friends who were travelling in Europe in the 1930s or who had strong opinions about the politics of Germany and Italy.
We are privileged to have Edith’s archive as she was an inveterate diary and letter writer and our collection contains fascinating letters, notes and postcards from her large circle of friends who, post First World War, included nationally and internationally famous writers, artists, socialites and aristocracy associated with the ‘Bright Young Things’ and the ‘Bloomsbury Set’.
Three letters in this collection were particularly exciting – two were written in 1933 (WSA 982/116) and the third in 1938 (WSA 982/125), and all referred to events and people that are now key to our understanding of the interwar period.
Poet Siegfried Sassoon was a close friend of Edith’s and they wrote to each other regularly. A letter from him dated 28 February, 1933, highlights his fear that another war is imminent. He wrote it the day after the Reichstag – the German parliament building – was set on fire and a month after Hitler had been sworn in as German Chancellor.
Sassoon writes: “How miraculously opportune my poor little poems will be at this moment when there is all this horrible war feeling in the air. Everything seems leading up to a European war… & Hitlerism appears to be a very dangerous & explosive remedy for unrest!”
His letter also alludes to the political disagreements at home with some factions supporting the work of the League of Nations and others believing the organisation, formed in the aftermath of the First World War, was doomed to failure.
Sassoon goes on to say: “The Devil must rub his hands when he sees Winston baiting poor old Lansbury, who after all is on the right side, though he may be a bit silly.”
Lansbury was George Lansbury who in October 1932 became leader of the Labour Party. He was known for his belief in pacifism and unilateral disarmament; so it is interesting to read Sassoon’s support of Lansbury’s position. Sassoon is pessimistic about the future: “I have been thinking about it a lot, & I can’t help feeling that, given a bit of bad luck & people losing their heads, another war might be started just as the Reichstag has been set on fire. Isn’t it strange how some people seem definitely to hate the League of Nations for trying to safeguard the world?”
Beatrice’s Illustration of the Anatomy of a Bat (from 4313/2/3)
Alongside our parish, ecclesiastical and local government collections, the History Centre is also home to many fascinating personal archives. I have recently completed cataloguing one such collection; the papers of the ecologist Beatrice Gillam (1920-2016). Beatrice was a dedicated observer of wildlife, and a vociferous advocate for the county’s natural history. As the cataloguing project comes to a close this seems a timely opportunity to celebrate the life and achievements of this local hero.
Beatrice’s interest in ecology began in her childhood, partly spent in Exmouth where she enjoyed exploring the local countryside. She began her career as a teacher of natural history and physical education in Somerset and later became an occupational therapist. But Beatrice never lost her interest in wildlife and in the 1950s took evening classes in natural history through Bristol University. This led to the award of a mature scholarship at London University to study zoology and botany in 1963. In 1966, she gained a Certificate of Proficiency in Natural History. Beatrice’s study notebooks give us an insight into the teaching of natural history at this time.
Beatrice’s Drawing of a Whinchat (from 4313/10/1)
Observer and Campaigner
Beatrice devoted many hours to observing wildlife at numerous sites across the county, and used diaries and notebooks to record species sightings and their behaviour. Beatrice also took part in many national and local wildlife surveys. Even when she was well into her seventies, Beatrice was out in the field, contributing to initiatives by the British Trust for Ornithology, such as their survey of skylarks (1996-1997) and annual Winter Farmland Bird Census (in the years up to 2000). Thanks to her long-standing commitment to many such surveys we can develop a picture of the changes to species population over time. Another component of the collection are the reference files which Beatrice compiled on butterflies, snails, ladybirds, deer, bats, grasses and many other species. These files typically contain printed articles, correspondence with conservation groups and habitat surveys.
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.